Culture IS Ordinary!


While pulling my information together on Raymond Williams, I soon discovered how important it would be to explain his whole background, for this is central to Williams’ socialist outlook on culture. In order to best describe his background and ideas, I played with words and images in PowerPoint to help me organize the information and stick to the most important points of Williams’ contributions to the study of media. I went on the Rolands Collection website and downloaded a video of Michael Ignatieff interviewing Raymond Williams back in the 80s on an interview show in Britain. The file had DMR rights to it so I couldn’t play the video itself, but I was able to record a short audio clip of Williams speaking about mobilized privatization.

Raymond Williams was born to a working class family in Wales; the son of a railway signalman. He went to grammar school and later attended Cambridge on a scholarship. After being called away as a wireless operator and a tank operator during World War II, Williams returned to finish his schooling in modern languages, history and the classics. He became a tutor in Adult Education where he discovered that people who wouldn’t normally be from the same social circles (think of a factory worker and a doctor), could come together for social discourse. As well, because of his own ordinary upbringing and background, he discovered through experience that culture is not for the elite, it is for everyone. In this, he differed from Marxist viewpoints in approaching culture through class conflict. He felt the teachings misunderstand what culture really was, and disagreed that “since culture and production are related, the advocacy of a different system of production is in some way a cultural directive–to serve the ideology”. He felt that socialism wasn’t the only model.

Williams felt culture could not be separated from other factors when studying effects models on an audience. He felt that the interpretation of culture must be done so in relation to its underlying system of production such as its political and economic conditions. Culture is a whole way of life and the arts are part of the social organization.

In looking at Williams’ writing in the article, I focused on three areas and asked three questions in relation to these areas:

1. Q: Williams criticized Lasswell’s sociology of mass communications’ effects model that looked at, “who says what, how, to whom, and with what effect because it excluded the question, “to what purpose or for what intention,” Although Williams believes it’s worth looking at “intention” at least from the point of view that there are interests and agencies of communication involved, the problem with the social model itself he says is that it, “abstracts social and cultural processes to concepts like socialization, social function, or interaction,” which basically amounts to filtering the results until you get what you want from them. The problem with this Williams says, is that you can’t isolate certain influential factors in socialization (such as school, work, home, television, and the press) because they are interwoven in social and cultural process. Can you think of another example involving a communications medium in which these socialization factors are intertwined?

A: For a modern day example, Pricewaterhouse Coopers did research which Don Tapscott was permitted to use in his book, “Growing Up Digital”, a study of the effects of and on the net generation, he admits in his Introduction when writing about interviewing 10-thousand people, holding dozens of private executive briefings on program results and recommendations”, that, “ The reports are proprietary to the research sponsors, but some of the high-level findings and main conclusions can now be shared publicly.” (xi Grown Up Digital, Mc-Graw-Hill, New |York, 2009) He thanks the sponsors on the next page, there are 25 of them including Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Sony, and Ogilvy One. (1. market research 2. technology company, 3. advertising agency. The companies holding the big bucks are directing the research here. What interests might Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Sony, or Ogilvy One have in a book that uses its research to show that Tapscott has discovered not a bunch of spoiled “screenagers” with short attention spans and zero social skills, but a “remarkably bright community which has developed revolutionary new ways of thinking, interacting, working, and socializing”?
(front flap, Grown Up Digital, Mc-Graw-Hill, New |York, 2009)

Furthermore, Williams said conflicting ideology also makes it difficult to focus on a particular aspect of socialization. In the article, Williams points out a preferred or dominant reading that violence is a contributing factor in aggressive behaviour, and an oppositional reading could be that violence is cathartic. (Stuart Hall ) Halloran called this ability to have differing perspectives in a society, ‘the plural values of society’ enabling them to ‘conform, accommodate, challenge or reject’.

Williams facetiously made an argument that if there is much more violence on TV than what is taking place in society, one might think agencies and producers are the ones living outside of the norm. (R. Williams: “Effects of the Technology and its uses”, 1975)

2. Q: Williams mentions that the technological landscape has led to a much broader access to television news, yet he notes the co-relation between voter turnout rates lowering and the numbers of people involved in social protests and demonstrations rising. What is he saying about the effects of television viewing here?

A: “It could be argued that increased exposure to competitive assessment in these terms has weakened adherence to occasional election as a political mode, or even that (given other kinds of political stimulation by television – the reporting of demonstrations, the dramatisation of certain issues) it has had some strengthening influence on alternative modes. (p 4)
Williams questions the preferred reading that the increased exposure to politicians provided by TV has strengthened the public’s engagement with politics. He’s suggesting an oppositional way of looking at this in that maybe watching TV news turns off voters and leads them to act publicly instead in the form of demonstrations and protests.

3. Q: The last question is in relation to Lazersfeld’s two-step flow model in that information is disseminated to the opinion leaders in society with the most access to media and the greatest understanding of content…who then pass on the information through their own politically-altered filters. Keeping this in mind, how would Williams view the use of the Internet for the dissemination of information?

A: I think he would look at the Internet as a broadly based tool in western society for getting both preferred readings and oppositional readings out into the public. (He might also note the somewhat limited use in some more remote areas due to either geographic availability of the service or economic affordability of the technology). The benefit of the medium in its heavy use of interactive, user-generated material, is that people who are willing to get their information from a variety of sources, may be better equipped to enter an educated arena of discourse with people from all different classes. The downside, he would say is the amount of disinformation dispersed on the Internet as a result of members of the public having difficulty determining some of the sources as reliable. This could make it difficult for the public to become genuinely educated on issues. As for the pop-up ads and side-bars, he alluded to a future of controlling agencies with commercial interests in his writing, Television – Technology and Cultural Form. Although he was talking about television as a great tool for helping generate, “an educated and participatory democracy”, Williams cautioned that, “a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities”.

An informal list of sources (not in MLA style)

(R. Williams, Television – Technology and Cultural Form. Quotes republished by Jim McGuigan /Loughborough University, UK on October 22nd, 2004 in Flow TV, http://flowtv.or/?p=685

Stuart Hall

Cole, Josh (2008) ‘Raymond Williams and education – a slow reach again for control’, the encyclopaedia of informal education.

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